Ciao to Our New Amici

We return from the grotto

This makes me giggle. I can just hear Tony asking,
“Cosa fai???”

Back at the trail head where the van was parked, a woman carrying a large bucket of freshly-picked red cherries approached, juice staining her striped shirt. She offered us handfuls of the ripe fruit which we readily gobbled.

The family that had accompanied us to the grotto led us to the small courtyard of a nearby house and offered us a refreshing drink. It wasn’t straight limoncello, but rather some kind of limoncello-ade.

Although we had only known these people a couple of hours, it felt more like a couple of years. They seemed familiar, and we were at home in their presence.

Other family members streamed out of the house to greet us. We all chatted awhile, explaining who we were and why we had come to this charming town. All too soon, it was time to go. We waved goodbye to our new friends as Andrea steered the van back to the church.

We shook hands with our new friends, but to say goodbye

So did the dogs

Back at the church, we poured out of the van to say our goodbyes and thank yous to Don Donato. He had completed his afternoon priestly duties and rustled over to us. He and Tony hooked arms, both looking as if they’d known each other forever. In a way, they had.

Don Donato and Tony -- fast friends

After a farewell embrace, we were off, waving sadly as the town disappeared from sight.


Returning to Praiano, by way of Salerno

As we made our way back down the mountain towards Salerno, Andrea expressed how honored and privileged he felt to have shared in this special day. “Many Americans return to Italia, but don’t pay their respects to their homeland in the way that you have done,” he told us. “You are different. You have honored your past.” I felt very proud of this little band of Americans.


The Magic Grotto

The Grotta Di San Michele Arcangelo is the site of an annual pilgrimage that takes place in Montoro Inferiore every Easter Monday, a place where ancient pagan and Christian religious rites swirl together into a special blend of worship.

The grotto consists of two natural caves. From the trail, we entered the largest. At one time, this place had been a hermitage for ancient monks. Byzantine frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries still decorate the rock walls, although their depictions of the angel San Michele and various Christian martyrs are now faded.

San Michele Arcangelo, prince of all angels and dragon slayer

Walking farther inside, we noticed a stone altar towards the back, its focal point a statue of the Arcangel San Michele himself. Rustic benches hewn from small rounded logs sat in rows facing the altar. Off to the right was the second cave, the inner grotto…the one with magical properties.

Before sending us up the hill towards the grotto, Don Donato had urged us to be sure to circle through this inner grotto three times. This, he explained, would magically ensure protection against any stomach problems and would provide a trouble-free pregnancy for women.

Our host family led the way. Dutifully, we stepped cautiously onto the uneven stones, ducking our heads away from the rocky protrusions in the roof. This could be tricky in heels; I was glad to be wearing sandals. Around we went, three times into the dark chasm, groping our way along the wall and squinting to adjust our eyes in the dim light. It was cool and smelled moist.

Allie ducks the low ceiling, intent on making her three rounds

Halfway through, Kris felt something holding him back. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the little girl hanging onto his shirt tail, grasping for the security of an adult before braving the rest of the way through the darkness.

After we had completed our three circuits, our new friends activated speakers which blared tinny, distorted music through the air. The two children pulled on a rope, clanging a large bell that hung from a stone parapet high overhead. It was a cacophony created in our honor.

This ancient stone artifact was just
leaning against a wall
Tony talks animatedly with Andrea and our new friend.
Keep in mind Tony doesn’t speak Italian.

The dog is now protected. He went round three times, right along with us.

After exploring the caves, we headed back down the trail at a leisurely pace. I walked next to the woman and we chatted in Italian while we walked. She had just picked a large handful of arugula for that night’s salad. I imagined her life and envied the peaceful look in her eyes.

Her dinner greens lie on the ledge

It is said that to ensure the protection of St. Michael, dragon slayer, you must at least once in your life visit this grotto and make those three circles while the bell tolls. We were glad to know that now we were under the guardianship of the saint.  Dragons can appear in many guises.

Via Grotta Dell’Angelo

Don Donato had to oversee a funeral in the afternoon, but he climbed into the van with us to show us the way to Via Grotta Dell’Angelo, a paved pathway that leads up to La Grotta di San Michele Arcangelo.

It's not every day you see a woman taking her goat for a walk

At the beginning of the trail, Kris admires the panorama below

This grotto, Don Donato stated, was something special, something we must see before leaving. After telling us the grotto’s secret, he turned us over to a family that lived nearby.  “Bella passeggiata,” he said, then left to tend to his funereal duties.

As we gathered to make our pilgrimage to the grotto,
Chris found another dog to make friends with

Accompanied by a woman, a man, a couple of boys, a young girl, and two dogs, we trudged up the hill towards the grotto, breathless not from the ascent, but from the panorama that spread out before us.

The path was lined with trees and lush greenery. The 14 stations of the cross dotted the trail, although since I am not Catholic, I could not name them. They, along with the passeggiata itself, were beautiful, nevertheless.

These people had never met us, but they graciously joined us on our walk, seemingly happy to guide us along

The kids immediately adopted Nichole,
recognizing a friendly spirit when they saw one

A saint welcomed us along the way

It wasn’t long before a stone structure tucked into the side of the steep hill came into view. We were at the foot of the grotto.

Bambini at the Scuola

Like a flock of lambs, we followed Don Donato into an elementary school not far from the church and just a few doors down from Bar Planet. The wall in the main hallway left no mistake that this was a parochial school.

"Give a caress to your children and tell them this is a caress from the pope."

We entered one of the classrooms, filled with youngsters about six years in age. The children looked at us curiously as we shuffled in.  After explaining to them that we were visitors from America, the teacher had them stand beside their desks and demonstrate their fledging English.

In unison, they began to recite the months of the year, then days of the week. It was endearing to hear them count to ten in their sweet young voices, bending the words with strong Italian accents. For their grand finale, they sang a song about summer. We clapped appreciatively, feeling like visiting royalty.

We may have been interesting visitors, but Don Donato was clearly the star

Although this little girl seemed
quite excited we were there

Ciao! Ciao! Ciao!

As we walked outside to the back of the school, they crowded around the open window, jostling for a chance to wave goodbye.

As we left, I noticed a string of pictures on the hall wall, each one depicting a month of the year.  It was June, of course, that reminded me, in the midst of all this frivolity, why we were here. The wedding was now only two days away.

Giugno, the month of June

Hanging Out With the Don

Don Donato ushered us into a small administrative area on the back side of the church. There he pulled out several yarn “necklaces” with paper pictures of the Madonna hanging from them. He handed them around, then passed out several postcards depicting the statue of the Madonna del Carmine, updated versions of Tony’s old card.

Next he brought forth an assortment of prayer cards of various saints, including one of San Michele Arcangelo (remember this name). Pocket-sized calendars adorned with a picture of the Madonna and a “miraculous” gold-colored medallion (La Medaglia Miracolosa) — “a gift from heaven,” it said — rounded out our handful of loot.

Don Donato lives just across the alley from the church. He invited us in to show us a few more things.

Don Donato pulls out old letters
that Tony’s aunts have sent him over the years
A beautifully embroidered wall-hanging
commemorating Don Donato’s Golden Anniversary
for 50 years of service to the church

Tools of the trade

Don Donato's sister keeps things in order at the church, including Tony

Don Donato offered us lunch, but since we had arrived unannounced, we didn’t want to impose. Most likely his sweet sister, who had joined us in the church in her house dress, would bear the brunt of the work entailed in providing us a repast.

Bar Planet -- a popular spot for locals and priests, alike

Instead, we suggested going across the street to Bar Planet for un caffé. We straggled into the bar to order drinks.

A small group of men was huddled around a table in the back playing Pidro, an old Italian card game. I recognized it from a description my dad had given me the previous year while we had watched a different group of men in a different part of Italia play the same game.

Characterized by the unmistakable thwack thwack of cards as they get slapped upon the table, usually accompanied by lively swearing, this game was played by my own grandfather and his friends in Napa Valley, California when my dad was a child.

Don Donato offers us drinks

That cup of caffe’ is as big as the barista’s smile! 

We ponder the unusual Merry-Go-Round-the-Saint
while Don Donato explains to one of the teachers who we are 

After our refreshments, the monsignor led us down the street to an elementary school. A whimsical merry-go-round filled the entry yard, metal seats with horse heads and pedals that whirled around a central saint. We followed Don Donato into the school.

Santa Lucia

Don Donato pulled us away from the golden Madonna and led us towards the back of the church. He stopped in front of a large statue standing regally in one niche, high above a small altar devoted to this particular saint, Santa Lucia Vergine e Martire. Saint Lucy is the patron saint of the blind and those with eye problems, and is often depicted holding a plate with two eyes on it.

Santa Lucia

(On the far bottom left, you can just see Don Donato anxiously looking on)

Don Donato asked Andrea to climb onto the altar, remove the crosses and candlesticks, and open the glass door that encased Santa Lucia. Carefully, Andrea picked up these sacred articles, reverently kissing a large cross before setting it aside. At the monsignor’s instruction, he gingerly tugged on the door, swinging it fully open so we could see several other items resting inside next to the saint’s feet.

Careful! Don't fall!

Gasping, we read the engraving now clearly visible on the statue’s base: A devozione di Perrotta Maria Ved. Del Pozzo 1966. That was Tony’s grandmother, Maria Perrotta, widower of his grandfather Del Pozzo.  There was also a faded photograph depicting a girl in glasses. So this is what the old woman in front of the church had been trying to tell us.

His grandmother had made a substantial offering to Santa Lucia as a plea for help. As we gazed up at the saint, Tony filled us in. He remembered hearing that his grandmother had suffered from eye troubles throughout her life. Now it all made sense.

Saint Lucy, Rock Star

Tony inspects the long-ago offerings of his grandmother to Santa Lucia

Gingerly, Tony took his turn climbing up onto the altar, coming face to face not only with Santa Lucia, but with the ghost of his grandmother’s past.

Another memorable moment for the Del Pozzo family

The Golden Madonna

Don Donato led us to the main altar where the Madonna of Tony’s weathered postcard held court over the masses. Here she was in all her glory: the santissima (very saintly) Madonna del Carmine.

And beneath her, slightly hidden behind massive gleaming candlesticks, was the plaque that announced to the parishioners every day that a member of the Del Pozzo family had made her glory possible.

Don Donato instructed Andrea to stand upon the altar (we winced, hoping nothing would topple) and move the candlesticks so that we would have an unobstructed view of the plaque. Cameras clicked and whirred, then we stood silent, just staring at it.

A poignant homecoming for Chris, Tony, and Nichole Del Pozzo

The church was anything but modest. Generous donations from both local parishioners and distant benefactors have provided for an extensive modernization of the infrastructure.  (Later, Don Donato marched us down to the basement to proudly show off the new air conditioning and heating system.) Additionally, donated dollars have not only repaired structural damage caused by earthquakes, but have created a splendorous interior.

Leaning our heads way back, we followed Don Donato’s unwavering finger directing our gaze upwards as he patiently explained the symbolism of the elaborate frescoed murals and architectural detail slathered over every inch of ceiling.

No, Sharon isn't napping on a pew. She's snapping a photo of the ceiling.

Don Donato then led us around the interior perimeter of the church, into each and every nave, telling us the names and stories of the wooden saints that stood in the niches. It didn’t seem to matter that he only spoke Italian. Somehow we understood most everything he described.

And then we came to another surprise.